As the Eagles maintained their lead, and the Redskins continued to play poorly, one thought ran through my head: they're not going to lose this game. It was for the same reasons that I thought they would finish strong despite a 5-6 record.
They finished stronger than I expected; it's hard to predict a five-game winning streak for a team that had just lost three straight. But it's the qualities this team possessed that made it possible. And it's why I expected them to recover from a 17-10 deficit, and later a 20-17 deficit.
This team has always had a confidence that helped compensate for deficiencies in some areas. In this league, little things like that are the differences. They said this summer that those who expected little would be proven wrong.
And when the Redskins lost to the Raiders at home and Joe Gibbs had a meeting, the offseason work was a main topic. The players were down, knowing they shouldn't be 5-6.
Gibbs said he remembered veteran guard Ray Brown telling him in that meeting, ‘'Coach, we're upset. We worked extremely hard in the offseason and feel we paid a price and it looks like it's not coming out the way we wanted it to. It's not being honored.''
‘'That has driven this team,'' Gibbs said. ‘'They made a commitment. They feel they paid a price and when you do that, it gives you confidence, like you've come to camp in fantastic shape and you can say, ‘Nobody's in better shape than I am.' Other times you cut corners and say in the back of your mind, ‘Well, I'm not so sure.' We had guys that paid a price.''
Sunday, the price they paid was rewarded. And that, it turns out, was priceless.
Locker room scene: The players were upbeat and ecstatic in the locker room, but there was more of a feel that this was expected. Though they celebrated, it wasn't with the gusto that one might expect from a team that hadn't made it to the postseason since 1999. Instead, they approached it as if this wasn't the end of a journey, but the beginning. There were hugs, smiles and the like, but it wasn't that far out of the ordinary -- at least when the media was allowed in -- from the previous two wins.
What this means: The players and coaches were validated in their belief in one another. When they were 5-6 few outside the organization still believed this was possible. But sometimes that's good -- often times perhaps -- because it forces a tight bond to grow even tighter. And that can help propel a team to five straight wins.
What was happening: The Eagles had a terrific game plan on both sides of the ball. For much of the game, they prevented cutbacks by Clinton Portis by keeping their linebackers and ends home on the backside. Time and again, Portis would look to cut back only to have a defender there, either forcing a cut into traffic or a tackle. Because the Redskins were persistent with the rush, it eventually worked well. Offensively, the Eagles did well because of Mike McMahon's mobility, using a moving pocket and rolling away from pressure. But when he left the game for some reason, it enabled the rush to get to Koy Detmer.
Defensive Game Ball: Linebacker Lemar Marshall deserves great praise for how he's played this season. And one skill that can't be overlooked involves his background. The fact that he was a defensive back in college has helped tremendously. Very few middle linebackers could have made the interception he did. He had to extend high and tipped it with his left hand; it was a defensive back type play. His anticipation and footwork from those days have turned him into a playmaking middle linebacker. As good as Antonio Pierce was last season, he did not make as many big plays.
And don't forget: Safety Sean Taylor. He gives the Redskins the opposite of Marshall -- a safety who plays like a linebacker. Taylor made a huge play Sunday when he scooped up a fumble and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. Taylor's versatility will be huge if Shawn Springs can't play. It allows the Redskins to use a big person in the middle if the Bucs try to spread and run Cadillac Williams. It's how the Redskins used Taylor against the Giants to much success.
Offensive Game Ball: Running back Clinton Portis, who surpassed 100 yards rushing for the fifth straight game. Portis continues to run with authority and, unlike last year, is now capable of breaking tackles at the line of scrimmage.
Tough day: for Mark Brunell. Perhaps it was his knee injury, but he was awful and will need to play better against Tampa. His passes sailed too often, but he did come up with a clutch run on a third down to sustain a drive late.
All-around contributions: Santana Moss continues to make huge plays that garner great attention. It's why he's so valuable. But there's another reason, too. His block on Clinton Portis' 22-yard touchdown run made the difference. Of course, Portis got to the outside on his own, but without Moss holding his block against the corner, he would not have scored.